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Benjamin Netanyahu, Defying Expectations, Pulls Off A Big Victory

By Laura King and Batsheva Sobelman, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

TEL AVIV, Israel — In a dizzying outcome to a divisive and angry Israeli election campaign, preliminary official results early Wednesday pointed to a sweeping victory for the party of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, paving the way for him to form a new government.

Through a long night of vote-counting that began with exit polls suggesting a dead heat, Netanyahu’s conservative Likud Party opened a lead over his main rival, the left-center Zionist Union, that widened by dawn to five or six seats in the 120-member Knesset, or parliament. With more than 99 percent of the vote counted, the tally was 29 or 30 seats for Likud to 24 for the Zionist Union, according to tallies posted on Israeli news sites. A final count will take some days.

Netanyahu, a consummate political survivor, had gone into Tuesday’s vote trailing in opinion polls, and had painted even the deadlock suggested by exit polls as a victory. By dawn, his supporters were rejoicing deliriously over a turnabout that, if borne out in the final official tally, appeared to give him a clear mandate to seek to remain Israel’s leader, though he will still need to woo key political factions to do so.

Addressing cheering, chanting supporters early Wednesday at his headquarters, Netanyahu declared that “reality does not take time out. … The citizens of Israel expect us to swiftly form a responsible leadership that will work for them, and so we shall do.”

But the scorched-earth campaign waged by the prime minister and his backers pointed to political fissures that will probably emerge again.

Initially, as the count was beginning, Isaac Herzog of the Zionist Union said he too would try to head a governing coalition. “We will wait for the real results,” he said. “The people of Israel want change.”

As the hours went by, however, those hopes appeared dashed. “The people have decided, loud and clear — Israel has spoken,” said Nachman Shai, a senior lawmaker in Herzog’s party. “The people want a right-wing government, and got it.”

Throughout the campaign, the two candidates were a study in contrasts, not only in style and personality but also on the big issues confronting Israel. Herzog said he would try to engage the Palestinians and mend ties with Europe and the United States; Netanyahu sought to quash Palestinian statehood hopes and railed against foreign critics who he said were trying to unseat him.

Reflecting voter passions, turnout was estimated to be even higher than the 68 percent in the last election, which was the highest in 16 years. Throughout the day, soldiers in rumpled uniforms, ultra-Orthodox Jews in long black coats and twentysomethings with nose rings made their way to polling stations across the country, sometimes waiting patiently in long lines.

No single political party has ever captured a majority in the Knesset. So the popular vote is only the first step in the painstaking process of assembling a governing coalition. Netanyahu will need to build alliances with an array of smaller parties to achieve the 61 seats necessary to govern.

Even the dead heat originally forecast in exit polls had represented a deeply disappointing outcome for the Zionist Union. Herzog’s supporters had hoped that the lead of up to five seats, projected in the final opinion polls before the vote, would translate into a victory sufficiently commanding that the 54-year-old lawyer-politician would be asked by President Reuven Rivlin to form the next government.

The president had expressed hope for a so-called unity government that would incorporate the rival factions. Netanyahu, however, has ruled out such a scenario.

The Zionist Union, having put the campaign focus in the final days on ousting the prime minister, would be hard-pressed to embrace him, although Herzog said earlier he would talk to any party, including Netanyahu’s.

As the exit polls were reported and the vote-counting began, the mood in the stunned crowd at Zionist Union headquarters was subdued, although Herzog’s post-midnight appearance drew warm cheers. “You put your heart and soul into this campaign,” he told backers.

Netanyahu in recent days had made a frantic push to retain support from conservative and nationalist voters amid signs the electorate had tired of him, and hardened already hardline positions toward the Palestinians.

On election eve, he declared that there would be no Palestinian state on his watch and that Jewish construction would continue in East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians want as the capital of their future state.

On election day, he drew widespread criticism with a Facebook video declaring that voters from Israel’s Arab minority were descending “en masse” on the polls, a stance denounced as racist by his opponents.

The preliminary picture painted by the exit polls illustrated a highly fragmented political scene that analysts predicted would make it difficult for either Netanyahu or Herzog to assemble a governing coalition or to keep that alliance from fracturing. But the later figures suggested Netanyahu would have a much more solid base on which to build.

The preliminary tally pointed to a political landmark: A political alliance of Israeli Arabs, who normally distance themselves from the country’s political scene, emerged as the third-largest party in parliament.

“We are in the midst of a historic founding moment,” said the alliance’s leader, Ayman Odeh, whose Joint List won up to 14 seats.

The new government that emerges from this maneuvering will be faced immediately with daunting challenges at home and abroad: economic woes that played an outsized role in the campaign; a damaged relationship with the United States, Israel’s most important ally; and external threats such as Iran’s nuclear program, which Netanyahu sought to frame as the most crucial threat to Israel’s existence.

Herzog had said he would attempt to engage diplomatically with the Palestinians.

The prime minister’s campaign had emphasized security issues, including the nuclear threat posed by Iran, while the center-left focused on social issues such as the soaring cost of living.

To some, Netanyahu’s relentless focus on threats to Israel amounted to a scare tactic.

Irit Neeman, a 58-year-old lawyer and talent agent, said she voted for the Zionist Union because “I’m fed up of living in fear.”

The prime minister’s core supporters, however, remained loyal. In Tel Aviv’s open-air Carmel Market, traditionally a Likud bastion, 46-year-old Adi Hayek, who runs a stall selling cheap cosmetics and drugstore goods, said he would not turn away from Netanyahu now.

“It’s Bibi or nothing,” he said, referring to Netanyahu by his nickname. “We are in good hands.”
___

Times staff writer King reported from Tel Aviv and special correspondent Sobelman from Jerusalem.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is battling to retain his seat in the coming Tuesday elections. His main rival Isaac Herzog’s relative anonymity has made elections a referendum on Netanyahu. (Daniella Cheslow/McClatchy DC/TNS)

After Israel Vote, Netanyahu And Herzog Scramble For Political Allies

By Laura King and Batsheva Sobelman, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

TEL AVIV, Israel — In a dizzying outcome to a divisive and angry Israeli election campaign, exit polls pointed to a virtual tie between the two main parties, leaving Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his chief rival scrambling early Wednesday to secure political alliances that would enable one of them to form a new government.

Netanyahu had gone into Tuesday’s vote trailing in opinion polls, so he painted the deadlocked preliminary outcome as a victory. And in the absence of a clear-cut defeat for his party, coalition politics now give the prime minister, a consummate political survivor, an edge.

Addressing cheering, chanting supporters early Wednesday at his headquarters, Netanyahu declared that “reality does not take time out. … The citizens of Israel expect us to swiftly form a responsible leadership that will work for them, and so we shall do.”

But his opponent Isaac Herzog said he too would try to head up a governing coalition. “We will wait for the real results,” he said. “The people of Israel want change.”

Throughout the campaign, the two candidates have been a study in contrasts, not only in style and personality but also on the big issues confronting Israel. Herzog said he would try to engage the Palestinians and mend ties with Europe and the United States; Netanyahu sought to quash Palestinian statehood hopes and railed against outside critics who he said were trying to unseat him.

Reflecting voter passions, turnout was even higher than the 68 percent in the last election, which was the highest in 16 years. Throughout the day, soldiers in rumpled uniforms, ultra-Orthodox Jews in long black coats and twentysomethings in nose rings made their way to polling stations across the country, sometimes waiting patiently in long lines.

Whatever the final voting results, they herald a fresh battle. No single political party has ever captured a majority of the 120 seats in the parliament, or Knesset. So the popular vote is only the first step in the painstaking process of assembling a governing coalition. As ballots were counted throughout the night, results showed some fluctuation that could affect coalition-building prospects in the tight race.

But if exit polls suggesting near-even votes for Netanyahu’s conservative Likud and Herzog’s left-center Zionist Union are borne out, the stage is set for the centrist party Kulanu, uncommitted as yet to either side, to play kingmaker by throwing its support to one of the two.

Kulanu’s leader, former Likud Cabinet minister Moshe Kahlon, was already being intensely courted by both sides.

Although an apparent dead heat was an enormous relief for the Netanyahu camp, it represented a deeply disappointing outcome for the Zionist Union.

Herzog’s supporters had hoped that the lead of up to five seats, projected in the final opinion polls before the vote, would translate into a victory sufficiently commanding that the 54-year-old lawyer-politician would be asked by President Reuven Rivlin to form the next government.

Rivlin was holding consultations with the various factions beginning Wednesday and within days was to issue an invitation to one of them to try to build a coalition.

The president has expressed hope for a so-called unity government that would incorporate the rival factions. Netanyahu, however, has ruled out such a scenario. The Zionist Union, having put the campaign focus in the final days on ousting the prime minister, would be hard-pressed to embrace him, although Herzog said earlier he would talk to any party, including Netanyahu’s.

As the exit polls were reported and the vote-counting began, the mood among the stunned crowd at Zionist Union headquarters was subdued, although Herzog’s post-midnight appearance drew warm cheers. “You put your heart and soul into this campaign,” he told backers.

Netanyahu in recent days had made a frantic push to retain support from conservative and nationalist voters amid signs the electorate had tired of him, and hardened already hardline positions toward the Palestinians. On the eve of the vote, he declared that there would be no Palestinian state on his watch and that Jewish construction projects would continue in East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians want as the capital of their future state.

On election day, he drew widespread criticism with a Facebook video declaring that voters from Israel’s Arab minority were descending “en masse” on the polls, a stance denounced as racist by his opponents.

The preliminary picture painted by the exit polls illustrated a highly fragmented political scene that analysts predicted would make it difficult for either Netanyahu or Herzog to assemble a governing coalition or to keep that alliance from fracturing.

The exit polls by the three main television channels may not prove accurate; some previous elections have seen substantial divergence between the initial indications and the ultimate count. Final official results will take days.

The exit polls and early tallies also pointed to a political landmark: an alliance of Israeli Arabs, who normally distance themselves from the country’s political scene, emerging as the third-largest party in parliament.

“We are in the midst of an historic founding moment,” said the alliance’s leader, Ayman Odeh, whose Joint List won up to 13 seats.

The new government that emerges from this maneuvering will be faced immediately with daunting challenges at home and abroad: economic woes that played an outsized role in the campaign; a damaged relationship with the United States, Israel’s most important ally; external threats such as Iran’s nuclear program, which Netanyahu sought to frame as the most crucial threat to Israel’s existence.

Herzog has said he will attempt to engage diplomatically with the Palestinians, a process that will be complicated by simmering anger over the summer war in the Gaza Strip and Palestinian moves to challenge Israel in the International Criminal Court.

The prime minister’s campaign had placed heavy emphasis on security issues, including the nuclear threat posed by Iran, while the center-left stressed social issues such as the soaring cost of living.

To some, Netanyahu’s relentless focus on threats to Israel amounted to a scare tactic.

Irit Neeman, a 58-year-old lawyer and talent agent, said she voted for the Zionist Union because “I’m fed up of living in fear.”

Despite the growing signs of social discontent, the prime minister’s core supporters remained loyal. In Tel Aviv’s open-air Carmel Market, traditionally a Likud bastion, 46-year-old Adi Hayek, who runs a stall selling cheap cosmetics and drugstore goods, said he would not turn away from Netanyahu now.

“It’s Bibi or nothing,” he said, referring to Netanyahu by his nickname. “We are in good hands.”
___
Times staff writer King reported from Tel Aviv and special correspondent Sobelman from Jerusalem.

An Israeli voter casts his ballot at a polling station in Bnei Brak, near the city of Tel Aviv, on March 17, 2015 (AFP/Gil Cohen Magen)

Israel Exit Polls Show Virtual Tie Between Netanyahu And Herzog

By Laura King and Batsheva Sobelman, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

TEL AVIV, Israel — Exit polls on Tuesday night suggested that Israel’s divisive and hard-fought election campaign had resulted in a virtual tie between the two main competitors, which could open the way for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to remain in office.

The exit polls, released moments after balloting ended, indicated that Netanyahu’s conservative Likud Party and the Zionist Union, led by Isaac Herzog, each took about 27 seats in the 120-member parliament, or Knesset. One TV channel said its poll indicated 28 seats for Likud.

The results, if borne out, would represent an enormous relief for the prime minister’s camp, after opinion polls last week suggested that Herzog’s party had pulled ahead by up to five seats. Netanyahu in recent days had made a frantic push to retain support from conservative and nationalist voters.

However, the early picture pointed to a highly fragmented political scene that could make it difficult for any leader to remain in power for long.

The exit polls by the three main television channels may not prove completely accurate; some previous elections have seen substantial divergence in the final count from initial indications.

Ballots were being tallied through the night, and a preliminary tally was expected early Wednesday. Final official results will take days.

Earlier in the day, Netanyahu had engaged in an extraordinary election day outburst directed at the country’s Arab minority, his political rivals and what he called foreign opponents seeking to engineer his downfall, leading to speculation that he believed he was in danger of losing the election.

Throughout the day, soldiers in rumpled uniforms, ultra-Orthodox Jews in long black coats and twentysomethings in nose rings made their way to polling stations across the country, propelling what was reported by election authorities to be a strong turnout as the vote stretched well into the evening. Election day was a national holiday, with nearly 6 million people eligible to vote.

Netanyahu, who as head of the conservative Likud Party has served as prime minister for the last six years, had lagged behind in pre-election opinion polls as he faced off against Herzog, whose party is considered center-left.

Under Israel’s political system, people vote for party lists, not individuals, so the real result will not be clear-cut even once the ballots are tallied. With the race so closely fought, some said they couldn’t make up their minds until they were in the polling booth.

One such voter was Michael Doron, a 46-year-old social worker from Mevaseret Zion, a town west of Jerusalem. She had intended to back her choice in the last elections — the centrist, pocketbook-minded party Yesh Atid, led by former Finance Minister Yair Lapid — but made a last-minute switch to the Zionist Union and Herzog.

“Why? Before anything else, we need to get rid of Bibi,” she said, using the nickname by which Netanyahu is known to friend and foe alike.

Although election rules ban the release of opinion polls while the vote is going on, parties make internal assessments of the voting trends, and Likud appeared alarmed by what it was seeing as the day wore on. The prime minister sought to summon the media to his residence for a live early-evening broadcast, but the Zionist Union obtained an injunction banning it as improper electioneering.

Earlier, in remarks that were swiftly and widely condemned by opponents, the prime minister contended in a video posted on Facebook that “Arab voters are moving en masse to the polling places” — referring to indications of a strong turnout among Israel’s Arab minority after the formation of a political alliance meant to give them more clout in the Knesset.

After being rebuffed in his efforts to go on live TV, Netanyahu’s campaign posted a second Facebook video in which he warned that “we are in a fateful battle … the only way to reduce it is go to vote Likud.” He repeated allegations that foreign money has buoyed left-wing organizations seeking to push him from office, and insisted that his main opponents would make “every concession” to the Palestinians.

Netanyahu backed down slightly on his remarks regarding Arab voters, saying that they had a right to cast ballots, but suggested that transportation to the polls had been organized by outside groups targeting him and his party.

“Netanyahu’s panic is embarrassing,” said Herzog, making an appearance in the town of Modiin. “Anyone wanting a prime minister who cares about the citizenry, and doesn’t divide and incite, must get up, go out and vote.”

The voting results herald a fresh battle. No single political party has ever captured a majority of the 120 seats in the Knesset. So the popular vote is only the first step in the painstaking process of assembling a governing coalition. Usually the head of the biggest vote-getting party is tapped to do so, but not always.

Opinion polls conducted last week gave the Zionist Union an edge going into Tuesday’s vote, but even if Herzog’s party wins the largest number of seats, Likud has more potential allies among right-wing and nationalist parties. Thus, Netanyahu could be asked by the country’s president to form a government even if his party stumbles. Smaller centrist parties such as Lapid’s will probably emerge as kingmakers.

In the waning hours of the campaign, Netanyahu hammered on a theme surprising to few Israelis, declaring that no Palestinian state would be created on his watch. Although the Israeli leader had endorsed a two-state solution six years ago, the peace process has been stymied since, and his rhetoric was read as an attempt to siphon off votes from other right-wing parties and shore up Likud.

The new government that emerges from this maneuvering will be faced immediately with a daunting set of challenges at home and abroad: economic woes that played an outsized role in the campaign; a damaged relationship with the United States, Israel’s most important ally; external threats such as Iran’s nuclear program, which Netanyahu sought to frame as the most crucial threat to Israel’s existence.

Herzog has said he will attempt to engage diplomatically with the Palestinians, a process that will be complicated by simmering anger over the summer war in the Gaza Strip and Palestinian moves to challenge Israel in the International Criminal Court.

For nearly all of the campaign, Herzog had publicly teamed up with running mate Tzipi Livni, a former Cabinet minister and peace negotiator. But on the eve of the vote, the two quietly dropped a proposed arrangement to rotate the premiership between them, a deal that might have alienated some of the smaller parties the Zionist Union would need to form a coalition.

More than two dozen parties contested Tuesday’s vote, with only about half forecast to muster enough votes to pass a threshold for representation in the Knesset.

Despite the signs of Netanyahu’s growing personal unpopularity, some supporters remained loyal. In Tel Aviv’s open-air Carmel market, traditionally a Likud bastion, 46-year-old Adi Hayek, who runs a stall with cheap cosmetics and drugstore goods, said he would not abandon the prime minister now.

“It’s Bibi or nothing,” he said. “We are in good hands.”
___

Special correspondent Sobelman reported from Jerusalem and Times staff writer King from Tel Aviv.

Photo: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu casts his vote (AFP/Sebastian Scheiner)

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu May Be On His Way Out

By Laura King and Batsheva Sobelman, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

TEL AVIV — In 1996, a canny and polished politician named Benjamin Netanyahu stormed onto the electoral scene and became Israel’s youngest prime minister. An articulate and commanding presence, fluent in English, twice wounded in combat, he became a political force of nature, never far from the spotlight — or the minds of his rivals — even during the few years when he was out of power.

Now, however, voters may finally be turning away from the 65-year-old leader. Trailing in the polls as he heads into Tuesday’s general elections, the prime minister has acknowledged he is in danger of being dislodged, though the famously mercurial Israeli electorate may yet make a last-minute swerve, and the vagaries of Israel’s complicated political system are likely to cloud the outcome.

Candidates crisscrossed the country Sunday, making impassioned eleventh-hour appeals in what has turned into one of the hardest-fought campaigns in modern Israeli history. For Netanyahu’s main competition, a center-left party known as the Zionist Union, the message was simple: It’s time for the prime minister to go.

“The public has had enough of Netanyahu,” said Isaac Herzog, the soft-spoken and scholarly lawyer-politician who morphed into the driven candidate now seen as the likeliest contender to lead the country if Netanyahu’s Likud Party falls short. “The public wants change.”

Polls appeared to bear him out. In the last surveys released before a “poll blackout” took effect at the end of last week, nearly three-quarters of the respondents said the country needed a change of course.

But if the country’s longest-serving prime minister since founding father David Ben-Gurion is on his way out, he is definitely not going without a fight. In a series of sharply combative interviews, Netanyahu depicted his rivals — Herzog and running mate Tzipi Livni, a former foreign minister and peace negotiator — as weak and naive, asserting they would make extraordinary concessions to Palestinians and fail to safeguard Israel against a nuclear Iran.

“Buji and Tzipi will run straight to Ramallah,” the prime minister thundered in an interview Sunday on Israel Radio, calling Herzog by his widely used nickname as he referred to the West Bank city that is the Palestinian Authority’s home base. “They will capitulate immediately. … They cannot withstand international pressure, and don’t want to.”

With the campaign’s end in sight, the candidates reached for emotional touchstones. Herzog on Sunday visited the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest prayer site, while Netanyahu made a rare personal campaign appearance before a right-wing rally in Tel Aviv, where he railed against what he called outside pressure to unseat him.

“We don’t back down, even under fire,” he said, addressing the crowd from behind a screen of bulletproof glass in Rabin Square, named for assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. “We offer truth to the whole world, as I did before Congress, in Washington.” He was referring to his controversial speech this month in the Capitol, which he used as a rallying cry against the Obama administration’s efforts to negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran.

Although the final burst of electioneering has taken on the tenor of high drama, commentators of all political stripes were nearly unanimous in their assessment that the vote is unlikely to result in a decisive victory for either side, because of Israel’s intricately wrought system of coalition governance.

The Zionist Union and Likud are the two largest among 26 political parties contesting the election, and it is virtually impossible for either one to achieve a majority in the 120-seat parliament, or Knesset. They must woo coalition partners, a process that can at times resemble a delicate minuet and at others a barroom brawl, and which can take weeks to yield a result.

It is usually the leader of the biggest vote-getting party who heads the government, but not always. In 2013, Livni’s Kadima party bested Netanyahu’s by a single seat, but she was unable to muster enough support for a workable coalition. Netanyahu was.

If the Zionist Union wins this election, she and Herzog have agreed to rotate the prime minister’s post.

Rivals can end up teaming up to form a “unity government” — which tends to struggle under the weight of internal contradictions — but Netanyahu has said he would not enter into such an arrangement, and the Zionist Union, having made calls for his ouster a centerpiece of its election platform, might find it awkward to then court him.

Netanyahu’s seemingly flustered demeanor in the campaign’s waning days was a far cry from three short months ago, when he summarily fired Cabinet ministers he deemed insubordinate, in effect dissolving his coalition and precipitating elections, which are being held two years ahead of schedule. At the time, the prime minister’s camp appeared confident he would win a mandate that would allow him to form a more conservative coalition without the presence of overt opponents in his government.

In hindsight, some observers said, that appears to have been a potentially fatal political miscalculation, a gamble founded both on hubris and a serious underestimation of popular discontent. A key early indicator of growing public restiveness was a grass-roots social-issues campaign that sprang up in 2011, galvanizing nationwide demonstrations over the high cost of living and unleashing new political forces.

Soaring housing costs, in particular, became a prominent issue in this campaign, but Netanyahu infuriated many voters by appearing to brush off their concerns in favor of a relentless focus on the Iranian nuclear threat.

Some commentators, though, said Netanyahu had run up against the pitfall that awaits any long-serving leader: simple voter fatigue. Columnist Sever Plocker, writing in the Yediot Aharonot daily, said that as the campaign drew to a close, Herzog had been wise to not only focus on social issues, but also to make the race a referendum on Netanyahu.

“Bibi is the weakness,” he wrote, using the prime minister’s universally known nickname. “Netanyahu, who wanted to cast himself as the responsible adult who is capable of navigating the country through stormy waves, has lost his captain’s touch.”

The prime minister’s stature too was tarnished by scandals that, if not sufficient in themselves to seriously dent his popularity, exposed him to mockery. Those included the disclosure that over a three-year period ending in 2012, he and his wife, Sara, had spent in excess of $100 a day in public funds on personal grooming, according to a state comptroller’s report.

Amid a sense that momentum was shifting away from Netanyahu, the Zionist Union warned supporters against complacency. “It’s not over yet,” Herzog said. Friday’s opinion polls, the last of the campaign to be published, indicated a lead of up to five seats for his party, but wider gaps than that have been reversed before, particularly with so many voters still on the fence.

Moreover, voters turning their backs on Netanyahu and the Likud are likelier to migrate to centrist or right-leaning parties rather than the Zionist Union. One such party, the centrist Kulanu, is forecast to be a kingmaker in coalition negotiations, but has not said which bloc it would support.

Netanyahu, who had held himself aloof from the campaign until its final weekend, radiated grim determination in the race’s final stretch. Asked whether he would step down as Likud’s leader if his party does not win, a step that would amount to leaving politics, he responded, “I am not quitting anything.”

“Right now I am focused on winning,” the prime minister said. “It is difficult, but it is possible.”
___
Times staff writer King reported from Tel Aviv and special correspondent Sobelman from Jerusalem.

Photo: World Economic Forum via Flickr

Israel Vows Tough Response In Killing Of Four Rabbis, Three Of Them Americans

By Laura King and Batsheva Sobelman, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

JERUSALEM — Israel vowed a harsh response after two Palestinian attackers slashed and shot to death four rabbis who were praying in a Jerusalem synagogue early Tuesday — an attack that horrified Israelis, drew international condemnation and threatened to further inflame Jewish-Muslim tensions that were already running high over a contested holy site.

At least seven Israelis were hospitalized in the wake of the attack, the deadliest in Jerusalem since 2008. The two attackers, shot dead by police units that converged on the scene within minutes, were identified as Palestinian cousins from predominantly Arab east Jerusalem, which has been a flashpoint for attacks in recent months.

The attackers — armed with cleavers and handguns and said to have been shouting “God is great!” — burst into the synagogue in the ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem neighborhood of Har Nof during morning prayers, witnesses said. Many devoutly religious immigrants to Israel have settled in the area, and three of the four rabbis killed held American citizenship, the State Department said. A fourth was a Briton, according to Israeli officials.

The White House identified the slain Americans as Aryeh Kupinsky, Cary William Levine and Moshe Twersky. The statement did not provide hometowns.

President Barack Obama condemned the attack but said “it is all the more important for Israeli and Palestinian leaders and ordinary citizens to work cooperatively together to lower tensions, reject violence and seek a path forward towards peace.”

Witnesses described panic and pandemonium during the attack, with the dead and wounded crumpling to the floor, clutching bloodied sacred texts. Those who managed to make their way out of the house of prayer burst onto the street screaming for help.

For many Israelis, the specter of a calculated attack on Jews at prayer, in ritual garments, carried chilling overtones of historic persecution.

“Jewish worshipers lay dead in pools of blood, still wrapped in prayer shawls and phylacteries, with holy books strewn on the floor,” Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, who heads Zaka, an emergency response group led by Orthodox Jews, told Israel Radio. “Such sights I have never seen — they recall dark days.”

U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and expressed condolences for the attack. “This simply has no place in human behavior,” Kerry told reporters in London.

Netanyahu, who called top security officials to an emergency meeting, declared that the “despicable murderers” would not go unpunished. Within hours of the attack, a massive police contingent raided the family homes of the two assailants, identified as Udai Abu Jamal and Ghassan Abu Jamal, and Netanyahu later said the homes would be demolished and “inciters” held to account.

A government statement said unspecified “additional decisions … have been made in order to strengthen security throughout the country.” Israel had already redeployed hundreds of troops to the West Bank after a pair of lethal stabbing attacks last week.

In the wake of the latest attack, Israeli forces in east Jerusalem and several parts of the West Bank battled stone-throwing protesters, clashes that continued as night fell. A light-rail train passing through an Arab neighborhood of Jerusalem was pelted with rocks, forcing it out of service.

At Kerry’s prompting, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas issued a denunciation of the attack but coupled it with a call for a halt to Israeli “intrusions” on a site in the walled Old City revered by both Jews and Muslims.

The militant Hamas movement, while not claiming any involvement, praised the attack. Celebratory gunfire rang out in the Hamas-dominated Gaza Strip and at several locations in the West Bank, and the group’s spokesman Sam Abu Zuhri called the attack a response to the “continuing crimes of the occupation.”

The brutal nature of the attack, the shock of such a strike on a house of prayer and the fact that the episode took place in a part of western Jerusalem considered far removed from recent clashes boded ill for any calming of violence that has roiled Jerusalem for months.

Four people on the Israeli side have been killed in the last month in vehicular attacks by Palestinians, and in a spreading of “lone wolf” attacks outside the city, a soldier last week was fatally stabbed in Tel Aviv and a Jewish woman killed outside a West Bank settlement bloc.

Much of the current burst of ill feeling is centered on the hilltop in the Old City revered by Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary. Jews are allowed to visit the site but not pray there, and activists — some from within Netanyahu’s government — have been calling for a change to that long-standing “status quo,” infuriating Muslims across the Islamic world.

Kerry visited Jordan — the formal custodian of the site — last week to try to ease frictions, winning pledges from Netanyahu and Abbas in separate meetings for calming measures. But calls for moderation are likely to be lost in the outcry over the attack and any retaliatory strikes arising from it.

“We’re at war,” Israeli lawmaker Aryeh Deri, who comes from the neighborhood where the attack took place, told Israel radio. Neighbors and relatives of the attackers described them as heroes of the Palestinian cause.

Palestinian media depicted the synagogue attack itself as retaliation, coming two days after an Arab bus driver was found hanged at a bus depot in the western part of Jerusalem. A forensic report ruled that there was no sign of foul play and that the death was a suicide, but Palestinian media reports sharply contested the impartiality of the examiners.

Tuesday’s assault was the most lethal in Jerusalem in six years, since a yeshiva on the city’s outskirts was attacked by a gunman, killing eight of the religious students. An off-duty army officer killed that attacker.
___
(Sobelman is a special correspondent. Special correspondent Maher Abukhater in Ramallah, West Bank contributed to this report.)

AFP Photo/Gali Tibbon